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ZURIK: DNA backlog delaying justice for some families

Updated: May. 25, 2022 at 10:01 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Keishia Deverney’s son created Element Beverage Company out of their kitchen. Devin Espadron, an up-and-coming entrepreneur who graduated from St. Augustine High School, developed the business model after being inspired by a class trip to a Coca-Cola plant.

In November of 2019, Devin was shot and killed in Audubon Park, at the age of 22.

“My son was a brilliant young man, a brilliant businessman, and he was just really on his way. I mean for his life to get cut so short, so suddenly, so tragically. And you know, we are still left with so many unanswered questions. It’s very, it’s very hard,” Deverney says.

On March 3, 2020, New Orleans police arrested Dellmarcus Kirton in connection with the case. They took a DNA swab a day later and sent it to the State Crime Lab. Records show that DNA was stuck in storage for almost a year. Kirton never got his day in court. He was shot and killed in July of 2020.

Devin’s case is now considered a cold case.

“I really believe that this young man would have been able to shed some light, some information, as to what happened to our son, and we will never know now,” said Deverney. “And to wait that long? I mean, I worked in the healthcare field for like 30 years, and it doesn’t take that long to send a specimen off and to get results back. So why would it have taken that long to get results back?”

FOX 8 found homicide cases that took as long as 770 days to get a DNA sample returned. Many others took months or more than a year. That included a double murder on Prentiss Avenue, where the DNA took 513 days to return.

It is the same story for cases involving rape. One sample was submitted in July 2016 but wasn’t returned until 777 days later in September of 2018. Many other samples weren’t returned for hundreds of days.

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“The issue with DNA and a backlog has been an issue that’s been going on for quite some time,” said New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno.

Louisiana State Police says it has a backlog of 670 NOPD cases. That amounts to about one year’s worth of cases the NOPD sends to the state for testing.

“There’s a person behind every single one of these cases. There’s a victim, there’s a person, there is a person’s family, all impacted by these delays. That’s what these numbers really mean. It’s not acceptable to them,” said Moreno.

The city pays LSP for seven analysts to work solely on NOPD cases. However, right now, three of those positions are vacant.

The NOPD said in a statement, “Any backlog related to DNA processing only illustrates the need for additional testing resources to be brought online throughout the state.”

Moreno says the city hopes to open its own DNA lab, but that could be two to four years away. She says advocates tell her one way to ease the backlog is for police agencies to be more selective about what they send to the lab.

“Let’s say you have a date rape situation. The question isn’t who the assailant was. The question is whether or not [it] was a rape, or was it consensual, but it’s not on who the assailant was,” said Moreno.

Annette Lawrence has been waiting nearly three years for closure in the death of her daughter, Tyshika. The 22-year-old was shot and killed and left in a car in Gentilly.

“She was very lovable. If there was anything you need, and she had it, she’d give it to you,” said Lawrence.

Friends called Tyshika “Tudy.” She loved basketball and dreamed of opening her own business.

“A rolled ice cream truck, that was her vision. And that was what she wanted to do. And she got the license and 2018,” said Lawrence.

Tyshika worked two jobs to save up money to launch that business. But in November 2019, she didn’t show up for work. Her father later found her shot to death in her car.

The NOPD sent DNA to the State Crime Lab about a month after her death. It took 382 days to process and return the sample.

“It hurts a lot not knowing who did it. Why? They’re still out there to do it to somebody else again,” said Lawrence.

Tyshika’s case is just another example of the wait that victims and families face.

“No one should have to wait that long. It’s too long. That’s over a year. That stuff just sitting that is too long,” said Lawrence.

State Police issued a statement to FOX 8 regarding the backlog. It says, in part:

“Facing a large influx of DNA requests combined with significant staffing challenges, the LSP Crime Lab currently has a DNA backlog of approximately 3038 cases. The turnaround time for expedited cases is approximately three to four months, but each case and scenario may affect the response time.

“We average three to five cases per week, per analyst. Currently, the LSP Crime Lab DNA Forensics Unit has 27 total DNA Analyst positions, 11 of which are currently working cases, including three NOPD positions. The LSP Crime Lab currently has 4 DNA Analyst vacancies including 3 NOPD positions.

“NOPD vacancies are filled through a collaborative effort between LSP and NOPD. Staffing challenges are actively being addressed through increased recruitment and training.”

State Police attributes the backlog to COVID-19-related issues, new DNA technology, and ongoing training for new hires after numerous analysts left in the past two years.

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